Q: If Scotland votes yes for independence this year, how do you think it will be perceived elsewhere in the world?
Well, I think international capitalism doesn’t like it and there may be some harsh reactions. But it may be another step towards the gradual fragmentation of the nation-state system in Europe. So, other things are happening elsewhere, like Catalonian may have a referendum. So far, it's not clear whether the government will permit it, certainly the population wants it. And there would be a referendum for greater degree of autonomy. Something similar may have happened in the Basque Country. There are other…part of the reaction to the centralization of the European Union has been a rise of regionalism and the local cultures, local languages, moves towards local autonomy. These are kind of conflicting processes. European Union policies have now been very heavily centralized. So much so that the national governments have virtually abandoned independent socio-economic policies handing over the Brussels bureaucrats. So, this is a natural reaction to it. UK’s is a little different because they were never totally absorbed into the European Union. So, they themselves have kept separate. But now, these are for their developments. It wouldn't surprise me terribly if something similar happened in Wales.
Q: Having reached the point of holding a referendum on ceasing the UK’s combined statehood, what do you think this means for a shared history the UK and empire?
The UK has been kind of a funny construct for a long time. I mean, just what Britain is is highly contested. Is it England? Is it a federal collection? Even the so-called English constitution, of course, not a written constitution, is very ambiguous about that. And there is a lot of debate about it. But I think it’s…I mean the nation-state altogether, is a pretty artificial construct. Nation-states were established almost entirely by violence. And they bring together—and they force into a single mold of people who often have little to do with one another. They speak different languages, they have different cultures, they have different traditions, different religions, you know. And the effort to mold them into a single entity with the role subjected to the same fixed national culture and the social commitments, service to state power and so on, that's been pretty hard. Even the effort to establish borders has been very violent process. Europe was the most savage place in the world for centuries while the nation-state system was being imposed. Finally, Europe is now free from internal wars and there's a lot of debate about the reason in the political science literature, you know, talk about the democratic peace and so on. My feeling is—the basic reason is quite different. The Europeans did recognize, had to recognize in 1945 that if they ever tried to fight another war, they would just wipe out everything. You can't fight wars with that degree of destructive power until the end. So, therefore moves to a period of more or less peaceful integration. But if you look around the world where there are conflicts raging all over the place, virtually all of them have to do with nation-state systems and boundaries that were imposed by the imperial powers, almost everywhere. Say, take Iraq. The British carved out Iraq in their own interests, not in the interests of the people in the region. There are sharp differences among them, the Kurds, the Shiite, Sunni and so on. Furthermore, Britain drew the boundaries of Iraq for their own interests again. They drew the northern boundaries so that Britain, not Turkey, would be able to exploit the oil resources. They drew the southern boundaries so that Iraq would be almost landlocked. That's why the principalities of Kuwait were separated out. And if you look around, Africa is the same thing. Asia, you know. Say, take Pakistan. The British drew a line called the Durand Line separating what was India from Afghanistan, now separates Pakistan from Afghanistan. The line cuts right through the Pashtun area, a kind of Pashtunistan. Pashtuns never accepted it. Afghans never accept it. Now if people cross that border, we call them terrorists, they may be going home, you know. And the same is true just about everywhere.
Take say the US-Mexico border. That was established by a war of aggression which the US conquered half of Mexico. You take a look at the names in the cities in southwest and western United States. San Francisco, San Diego, and the Santa Cruz, I mean Spanish names. There was a pretty open border for a long time. People went up and back for work, for visiting relatives and cultural reasons, commercial, whatever. The borders have been slowly militarized. Sharp increase in militarization was actually in 1994. And that was connected with NAFTA, the so-called free trade agreement. US officials understood perfectly well and in fact said that the effective NAFTA will likely be to drive impoverished Mexicans across the border. NAFTA is going essentially wipe out Mexican agriculture. Mexican Campesinos can be perfectly efficient but they cannot compete with the highly subsidized US agribusiness. So they'll be driven off the land and that’s still happening. Right now, Campesinos are being driven off the land
What would they do? A lot of them come north. So, you are getting an illegal immigration problem, you have to militarize the border. Things like that are going on all over the world.
I remember it struck me very--not that I didn't know it but it struck me very dramatically sixty years ago. My wife and I were students when we were living in Israel. And we were kind of hitchhiking, you know, students, backpacks. And we were hitchhiking up in northern Israel and we're just walking one evening. And a jeep came along on a road behind us, and a guy got out of the jeep and started yelling at us. In Hebrew, he told us you got to come back. What happened was we walked into Lebanon. At that point the border was unmarked. Now I suppose it is bristling with, you know, tanks and so on. And the border was just artificially drawn right through Galilee by the British and French for their own purposes. That didn’t have to do with the people there. And the same is true almost everywhere.
And one of the reactions to all of this is the kind of coalescence of more or less coherent groups, you know, never totally so, into regions where they feel more comfortable and running their own affairs. And I think that’s pretty much what the Scotland referendum is about.
Q: The Scottish independence question has been agreed by the UK state and its devolved Scotland elements, with that in mind, what form of independence do you think is possible, and likely on offer, given global pressures on state restructuring, the preconditions of international treaties and regional/global inter-dependencies?
Not simple. I mean you can't separate yourself from the world these days. Maybe Bhutan can, but most states can't. So, Scotland, if it moves towards independence in some form, we don't know what form, would have to figure out ways of determining how it can become and be enmeshed in the international treaty system. That's not so simple. Like, take, go back a couple hundred years. When the American colonies separated themselves from England, one of their main tasks immediately was to become what was called “treaty worthy,” to be treated by the Europeans—the European powers were of course the dominant powers—to be treated by the European powers as a nation which could enter into their system, so that it would become treaty worthy, worthy of accepting treaties. That had a double-edge at the time. The colonies, American liberated colonies wanted it for two reasons: one to be accepted by the European powers to be treated, you know, by the international treaties of the day. The other was because the Westphalian system, you know, their reigning system permitted each state to operate freely without interference in its internal affairs. And for the American colonies, that was extremely important because they had two major tasks. One was to maintain slavery and the other was to wipe out the indigenous population.
And they didn't want interference with that. So if they became treaty worthy, they would be permitted to run their own internal affairs without European interference. That was not a small point. Like Britain said at the time, the major power, was moving towards abolition of slavery. It was moving there and had also been protecting the rights of Native Americans. But once the United States became treaty worthy, it was free from those external constraints. It’s a little bit like the current international system which (inaudible) principle says you are not allowed to interfere with affairs of other countries. Say, South Africa during the years when it was struggling to maintain Apartheid, its claim, which was not vacuous, was that “the UN Charter guarantees that each state can run its own affairs internally. So what does the world have to say about the apartheid?” That was their argument. It was actually accepted by the legal authorities for a long time.
Q: A recent Scotsman newspaper article reports that in 1990, following a speech on self-determination in Glasgow you said: “Is a movement for Scottish nationalism crazy? It depends what form it takes. If it takes the form of expressing cultural value and integrating people in a more full life, that’s fine. Nationalism has a way of oppressing others. One the other hand you want to make sure that a move towards devolution doesn’t lead to more pressure, which it could very well do.”
What are your thoughts today?
The same. I mean that’s—nationalism has its positive aspects but it can be very ugly. I don’t have to give historical examples. We have a plenty of them.
Q: With the Scotland referendum much has been made on the Left about this being the “smashing of the British state.” Is this really “smashing the system” or is it the system smashing itself—in a constant disruptive reorganization and is there a way for change to happen “without talking power”?
Well, my guess will be that if there is a move towards autonomy in Scotland, it'll be a mild reform. Nothing's going to be smashed. There will be slow evolutionary changes in the way Scotland will interact with England, with European Union, with the United States, with international treaties. And capital is efficiently internationalized. So there's going to be plenty of links and plenty of power. The power won’t devolve to the local level. The international financial system is just too powerful for that. So, until that is dismantled, all states are going be enmeshed in the webs that it develops. I mean, in the case of the European Union, it is extreme. The Bundesbank and Brussels bureaucrats are in effect dictating policies for states. Actually even The Wall Street Journal had an article pointing out that no matter what government wins in elections in Europe, communists, fascists, whatever they may be, they follow the same policies because policies are not being determined by the countries. In fact, we saw that pretty dramatically when George Papandreou hinted barely, that maybe there ought to be a referendum in Greece for people to decide if they want to accept EU policies, there was just uproar and fury, how can you ask the people, what do they have to do with it? I mean stuff is all determined by the bankers and the bureaucrats in Brussels. So without really substantial changes in the international order, any small state, like say, independent Scotland would have to accommodate itself to that somehow.
Q: Author James Kelman said: “No one is given freedom. The Irish people who didn’t already know that in 1918, had learned it by 1919. We assume it as a right and we take it as a right. How do we do it? Anybody with experience of the labour movement should know of at least we withdraw our labour, we withdraw from the process, we reject the ballot. We turn our back on the ballot box. We do not participate. That is a start.”
Withdrawing from the electoral process may appear to some as a passive engagement. But is this true?
Well, I read Jim Kelman’s comments. I mean if it’s simply withdrawing, it doesn't help much. If it's withdrawing in order to concentrate on other things which I presume you meant, like developing bigger social movements which will lead to, which will lay the basis for substantial socio-economic change, and if withdrawing means “Let's put our energy into that,” then it can be positive. If withdrawing simply means I'll stay home on the referendum day, it doesn’t mean anything.
Q: Mark Fisher described a phenomenon of “capitalist realism” as: “Not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but it is now impossible to even imagine a coherent alternative to it.” Is it impossible for populations of the “global north” to imagine a coherent alternative to capitalism? Are there a lack of alternative visions?
First of all, it is very easy to imagine because we live in an alternative to capitalism. Take, say, the big banks which have enormous power. Where do their wealth and power come from? Well, actually there was a study by the International Monetary Fund little while ago of the big banks in the United States. And it determined that their profits almost entirely derive from taxpayers. Their profits trace back to the--there's a government insurance policy. It's not formal, but it’s tacit. It’s called “too big to fail.” It means that if you get in any trouble, the taxpayer will bail you out. That provides the big banks with enormous profits. It's not just the bailouts, the visible bailouts. It means that they get access to cheap credit with inflated credit ratings, all sorts of mechanisms which are highly profitable to them. That also means that they can engage in risky transactions which tend to be profitable. And they don't have to worry too much because if it goes wrong you run cap in hand to the state and say bail me out. Is that capitalism? It’s very remote from capitalism. In fact, almost everything you do, say, you have a computer, I’m sure you use the Internet. Is that a capitalist development? It was developed places like this. In fact, we were sitting under pentagon contracts for decades before it was handed over to a private enterprise to market. Bill Gates is the richest man in the world for basically… he introduced some marketing innovation undoubtedly, but the basic technology and hardware, the software, the big ideas, the hard work was mostly done in the state sector in one or another way, either directly or indirectly in one fashion. And he also has the monopoly rights. He managed to get in at a time which grants Microsoft something like monopoly rights for operating systems. If you buy a computer, you get Windows. Well, reliance on creative work in the state sector and on monopoly rights is pretty remote from capitalism. And we have a kind of mixed state capitalist system but it's not capitalism. Can you imagine alternatives to that? It’s very easy. It is actually capitalism would be an alternate but there are much better ones.
So for example, you can easily imagine systems in which the big banks do not maintain their profit on their ability to crash the system because of taxpayer munificent, easy to imagine. And in fact there are many other forms of organization of production and distribution and so on which are in fact being developed. So there are worker-owned enterprises in many places. In the old rust belt, there are many big cooperative movements, the Atlantic region and Canada and many other places. These are all alternatives, germs of another society. Imagining something more free and justice is not only not hard, but you can see bits and pieces of it developing.
Q: Do we need a unified revolution or should we instead be looking at what John Holloway calls the “cracks” in the system: “the multiple rebellions and alternative creations being connected by invisible or almost-invisible (and rapidly shifting) fault lines in society-what is important is to see the manifold forms of rebellion in everyday life”?
Well, you do what’s possible at a particular stage of history under particular circumstances. There's no point and there's no master answer to this. At different times, there are different things to do. There are times when it's possible to introduce a radical change in the society. The most dramatic case was 1936 in Spain, when a large part of Spain was taken over by partially coordinated peasant and worker movements which created the germs of the left libertarian society. It didn't last long not because it failed but because it was crushed by force. I mean the communists, the fascists, liberal democracies disagree on a lot of things but they agreed on one thing: we have to crush freedom. So, the first year of the Spanish Civil War, so-called, was basically a year devoted to crushing the libertarian forces of the left. Communists are in the lead but fascists and liberal democracies participating.
Orwell wrote about this, not entirely. As he said, he didn’t entirely understand what was happening. And there is much extensive work by now. But that's essentially what happened. Well, that was a moment when radical--those circumstances were ripe for radical change. And it wasn't just out of nothing, there was decades of preparation for it. Preliminary efforts, trials that were crushed, rebuild educational programs. People sort of had in their heads what you could do because of decades of struggle. That’s how things can happen.
It happens in other respects too. Take say, the American Civil Rights Movement, which was a partial success, not a huge success but a partial significant success. The background had been laid for decades of work most of which got nowhere or almost nowhere. In 1960, a couple of black students sat in the lunch counter, arrested. The next day, more students, pretty soon you had the Freedom Riders, a formation of SNCC, which was the forefront of the student nonviolent coordinating committee. It was a kind of forefront of the Civil Rights Movement. In prison, you had a mass movement. And the things changed. It was a moment. It took will and energy and effort but the time was ripe for it because of work of long periods. And I think that's the way changes take place.
Q In a conversation between Michael Foucault and Gilles Deleuze in 1972, Foucault said “we had to wait until the 19th Century before we began to understand the nature of exploitation and to this day we have yet to fully comprehend the nature of power.” Do we yet comprehend the nature of power?
I think we comprehended it long before. People carrying out a slave revolution understood the nature of power very well. People struggling for their rights everywhere understood the nature of power. And we still understand there's nothing--I don't think there’s anything deep and invisible. The structures of power, those we have to unravel. Like say, the European Union, if you want to understand the structure of power in the European Union, you have to understand the way the bureaucracy works, the banks work and the Bundesbank works and so on. But the nature of power, I don't think that's very obscure.
Q: Is there a unifying theory to help understand and explain what is going on in the world today—with economics, war, revolution, etc?
The world is too complex with that. Lots of things are happening. I mean, there’s main, general comments you can make about them. So, for example, you can talk about the international treaties that are being created and ask what they are. Like right now, there’s two huge treaties are being negotiated at the Transpacific and Transatlantic Partnership. And you can ask what they are. Actually you can't really say in detail, because they're negotiated in secret. Of course, not entirely in secret, they’re not secret from the hundreds of corporate lawyers and lobbyists who were writing them, which tells what they are going to be, but they are secret from the general population, more or less. But you can study the nature of these, what they are doing, what has been done. There are good articles in Le Mond Deplomatic, Public Citizen and elsewhere. And when you unravel that, you discover a good deal about the structure of power. If you read this morning's newspaper, you find that the United States and Japan have failed to impose on their populations something they were trying to do in secret. So far, it failed. Well, all of that can be studied. But there's no single, sort of phrase. I mean, you can make up for slogans, if you like, but there are no illuminating single phrases that capture the complexity of human life.
Questions by Gordon Asher, Leigh French and Stuart Platt
Film by Stuart Platt
Recorded at MIT, Boston 2014